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Class II Kayakers in Chile's Class V Paradise,
By Lora Cox

As beginner and intermediate paddlers we are constantly enticed by incredible class V rivers and rapids. One of the most reverently spoken of is the Futaleufu river in Chile. Recently Lora Cox went to Chris Spelius' camp in Chile to see what everyone is talking about.

We, two middle-aged kayakers who took up the sport a few years ago, first became aware of the gorgeous Chilean whitewater from watching the Canoe and Kayak shows on the Outdoor Life Network last summer. There were several segments featuring the raging sparkling blue-green water, the beautiful countryside, and the simple agrarian life of the natives. Of course, the shows emphasized the thrilling Class IV and V runs. But there was something about the undeniable beauty of the water that just kept calling to us, like the mythological Sirens who tempted Odysseus. After making a few phone inquiries, we were assured that, although the area is renown for The Greatest Whitewater on Earth, the outfitter was prepared to accommodate us with some advanced planning.

Although we'll likely never be Class V paddlers, we do love rivers and paddling just as much as the young testosterone-laden hair boaters and the seasoned experts. We didn't want to miss out on being there, just in case the Chilean government decides to dam it up (like they did the Bio Bio). The final factor in our decision was a desire to escape a bit of the New England winter, since the seasons are reversed in the Southern hemisphere. The outfitter has one week trips as the standard, but we signed up for two weeks. Final plans were made last October. We signed up for a trip in March when the water would be lower, when they would have staff ready for our abilities, and when there would even be other people there with similar skills to ours, in addition to the hair boaters. March finally arrived and we were off.

In trying to describe the experience, it is difficult to find superlatives that adequately express how great the trip was. The outfitter came through with the promise to accommodate our skill levels. The trick to getting the outfitter's resources matched with our skill levels was that we were brutally honest in our self-assessment. There's some serious water in Chile; an overly generous self-assessment of one's skill level is self-defeating. Chilean Class II seemed more demanding than New England Class II. We paddled a total of 11 days on three local rivers: the Rio Espolon, the Rio Palena, and the bottom section of the Rio Futaleufu. Most of our time was on the Espolon. There were no crowds. A couple of outfitters in the area run raft trips on the Futaleufu, so it is possible that the hair boaters had to briefly share the river with a couple of rafts. On our Class II sections, however, we never encountered any other people.

Since this region is home of The Greatest Whitewater on Earth, there's no shortage of qualified guides. For five days, we were fortunate enough to have Mike Hipsher as our guide/teacher. For the other six days, the guy who owns the company, Chris Spelius, decided to take up the challenge of helping us improve our skills. Another guide, Rob Kelly, a rodeo champion, was there but only paddled with the Class IV-V group. Mike and Chris have many years of experience paddling and teaching, and have each earned worldwide recognition for their superior skills. It was a honor to have both of them paddling with us and to learn from them.

In a way, it was surprising that Chris paddled with us. He certainly could have pulled rank and gone for the gusto on the big water with the hot paddlers. After overcoming my initial surprise, and apprehension, about paddling with him I came to recognize the sincere appreciation he has for all aspects of the sport and of the region. He has an intense, and pure, love for paddling which allows him to enjoy dinky Class II stuff. Each day we were with him he had something appreciative to say about the character of the clean blue-green water or the beautiful scenery. He loved "being there" as much as we did.

Early in the trip, I watched him teach an off-side roll to Peter, a guy who usually sea kayaks but who came to Chile with his whitewater hair boating buddies. Peter learned the roll in 20 minutes, and a big grin took up residence on his face. I wanted that grin, and later asked Chris if he would help me to try and learn the roll. It took him a little longer to teach me, but I got the roll. And the grin.

I tested both Mike's and Chris' rescue skills; they passed with flying colors. A couple of times we attempted the bottom section of the Futaleufu, which they maintain is a Class II. That's debatable. It's big and pushy, but without serious consequence (or so they say). During my "combat swim" after flipping when two big, fast-moving, currents converged, I was almost to shore when the force of the rebound current pushed me back into the main flow of the river. This necessitated Chris doubling up his efforts of rescuing someone else and then coming for me. We did not paddle the Futaleufu; it paddled us. So we went back to our old friend the Espolon and worked on improving stroke technique and putting more "umph" into our paddling.

It is deceptive watching a good paddler; the strength behind the strokes is not immediately apparent. Those guys made it look like they weren't even exerting themselves. I was determined to learn the one-stroke stern draw ferry and was getting it pretty good, on Class II water, just about the time we had to leave. Other people might have been disappointed about not becoming proficient enough to paddle the famous Futaleufu, but we were grateful to make the progress we did, to learn from the teachers we had, and to be in such a gorgeous warm environment in March.

One day we skipped paddling in order to hike up to the Throne Room rapid and watch the hair boaters tackle it. Two of them normally paddle the Falls of the Potomac; not surprisingly, they had impressive runs with no major problems. Imagine our amazement a few minutes later when we saw them running it again, after carrying back to the top, this time nailing their lines to the wall. Their runs were beautiful. They got special recognition from Chris that night at dinner.

Judging from the energy level and conversations around the table during breakfasts and dinners, the higher skilled paddlers had as much fun on their runs as we did on ours. It was great listening to tales of their adventures, and learning a little bit from them.

There was a videographer/paddler at camp for the entire season who would, for a price, shoot a video of each paddler's runs. Because he mostly spent his time with people on the Class IV-V stuff, I asked him if he would include in my video runs of paddlers on the difficult sections, as well as get shots of camp and include the native Chilean support staff who work hard so that we can play hard. He did all that and put some nice Chilean music to the 30 minute unnarrated video. I watch it at least twice a month, sometimes more if I can nab an unsuspecting friend and pop the tape into the VCR. There are even a few, brief, shots of us in the video. In one, I rolled up on the bottom section of the Futaleufu after falling victim to the power of a strong eddy fence. Thankful to have rolled up and that the roll was caught on tape; regretted flipping over without more awareness of the hydrology in the first place.

That part of Chile is remote, unpolluted, and sparsely populated. People live simple lives there. The water is without equal; it is breath-taking in its splendor. I've got some pretty good color pictures that don't begin to capture how beautiful the water is. Usually glacial melt is a gray milk color because of all the silt in it. This water, however, melts from the glaciers and flows into gigantic lakes where the silt settles out of it, the sun warms it up a bit, and then it continues into the rivers. The result is a sparkling blue-green masterpiece of color that rivals the Caribbean. When the water is splashing up in turbulence, its brilliance puts the finest crystal chandelier to shame.

From our experience, we can make a few recommendations to anyone considering this trip. The outfitter now has beginner trips and can accommodate people who've never even been in a kayak before. Following are brief notes to help anyone else who might be thinking about planning a kayak trip to Campo Tres Monjas.

1. Plan well. Read all the info the outfitter has carefully compiled, from years of experience, in order for the trip to go as smoothly as possible. Be brutally honest about your paddling abilities so that you can go on a trip where you'll likely have the most fun. If you end up paddling better there than you had initially assessed yourself, they'll happily take you on tougher sections. There's no shortage of tough water or guides eager to run it.

2. Put two trips together if you can. We went for two weeks, as did another couple during the time we were there; all four of us agreed that it was the best for us. The woman in the other couple wasn't serious about paddling and spent a lot of her time riding horses, hiking, or hanging out in camp reading by the shore of the Futaleufu. She had a good time for two weeks while her boyfriend adrenalized himself. Of course, by the end of the second week I regretted not signing up for three.

3. Be prepared for a loooong trip, somewhere on the order of 30 to 36 hours each way, depending on where you begin. This doesn't include mechanical or weather problems that may impose a longer travel time. The Miami to Santiago leg alone is an 8 and 1/2 hour overnight flight. It's brutal. If you can, stay at least one night in Puerto Montt going each way. Once you get to kayak camp, you're in a remote area without electricity or stores nearby. Plan accordingly, and give yourself lots of time to pack prior to leaving so that you can think of the little things you might want to have with you when you're there.

4. Be prepared to experience "camping" as you've probably never enjoyed it before. Although I could write an entire article about how great camp was in its design and organization, here are some brief remarks to tempt and tantalize. Water from an underground spring has always tested negative for bugs; so there's no hassling with filtering or sterilizing water. Two outdoor hot water showers; hot water obtained from wood fired stoves. One stove is in the kitchen part of the dining hall; one stove heats the sauna (yes, sauna). Massage (yes, massage) services available most evenings; cost isn't included in trip fee, however. "Rack Room" area to hang wet clothes and gear when you get back each afternoon. Solar panel on dining hall building provides enough electricity for dinner lighting. Food is excellent, 3 squares a day, prepared by a Chilean cooking magician. A different freshly baked bread each day. Some of the dinner entrees: spaghetti, pizza, World's Best Marinated Salmon (Chile has a booming salmon industry), Argentinian-style beef, lentil stew. They can accommodate special nutritional needs. Sleeping in a tent was about the closest we came to "camping" during our time at kayak camp.

5. The guides are isolated from most of civilization during the entire season, from January through March, and are therefore desperate for current news. If you go on a trip and want to get in their good graces from the beginning, take a few newspapers with you. Mike was especially starved for the NY Times. If he's there when I go back, I want to find the Spanish edition of the NY Times to give him. Then I'll wait a few days before giving him the English version. After that, I'll hope he's not the kind of guy to carry a grudge.

6. Come with a sense of adventure and remember the area is isolated. It is remote to most modern aspects of civilization and sometimes equipment breaks down. This happened while we were there, toward the end of the trip, to the workhorse shuttle bus. Never missing a beat, Chris rallied his Chilean contacts and quickly resolved the problem, finding a substitute for the ailing bus. In such a remote area with few alternate resources available, and even fewer mechanics and buses, that was an amazing feat. And all without imposing on our river time.

That's the summary of our Chilean kayaking adventure. It appears that people of all paddling skills can have a great time at kayak camp, named Tres Monjas, in Chile. If you are interested in taking a trip yourself, contact Expediciones Chile, at on the web, e-mail, or call (888) 488-9082 to find out more. We highly recommend the experience, and are trying to figure out how soon we can go back. The outfitter really does a great job. Anyone who's paddled for a while will appreciate all the behind-the-scenes effort and organization that goes into the trips.


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